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Review: Boney James Performs with Panache in Smooth Cruise Kickoff
By Nate Chinen, NY Times, June 26, 2015 | Photo Credit: Nicole Fara Silver for The New York Times
Forty minutes into his sold-out first set on the Smooth Cruise on Wednesday, Boney James dialed up his crowd work with the efficient panache of a retail politician. First came the selection of a woman from the audience, who needed no cajoling to strut onstage and start dancing in a comically suggestive face-off with Mr. James and his tenor saxophone.
Then Mr. James darted through the crowd, a black fedora and a mop of curly hair negotiating a thicket of raised smartphones. He hopped onto a chair at middeck and bleated a few pithy lines on tenor while the members of his band motored through a kind of frictionless, imperturbable soul groove. They were playing “Contact,” the title track of Mr. James’s 2011 album, and sounded as if they could keep it going awhile. Forever, maybe.
Hornblower Infinity, an aptly named 210-foot yacht, had just pivoted near the Statue of Liberty and was cruising back to Pier 40. A long line of well-dressed fans waited there, eager to board for the second set. So, by all the metrics that matter, the kickoff to this summer’s Smooth Cruise series had already proved a success.
But Wednesday’s cruise served a dual purpose: It was also the only New York City stop on Mr. James’s current tour. His new album, “Futuresoul” (Concord), has spent the last six weeks at the top of the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Albums chart, burnishing his stature as one of the format’s most reliable stars. He duly opened his early set with the album’s lead single, “Drumline,” a dose of quiet-storm funk with a light retro sheen.
Mr. James has long been at home in the sector of contemporary jazz that dovetails with smooth R&B; aside from the coiffure, he’s more Robin Thicke than Kenny G. (Jairus Mozee, who has worked with Mr. Thicke, helped write and produce “Drumline.”) Mr. James’s appeal is a matter of poise and taste: He doesn’t get sickly sweet on ballads, and he’s rhythmically sly, phrasing behind the beat.
The touchstone for saxophonists in this style is still Grover Washington Jr., whom Mr. James acknowledged as an early influence in his preface to “The Moment.” Another tune from the new album, “Vinyl,” played on similar early-1970s nostalgia.
In a few other spots, notably on a beefed-up older tune called “Nothin’ but Love,” Mr. James stretched out, in a manner of speaking. His arc as a soloist is emotional rather than narrative — meaning he doesn’t really tell a story, but he can paint a scene.
His band backed him more than capably, even with a substitute guitarist, Carl Burnett. High proficiency is a given at a smooth-jazz show of this caliber, but Mr. James’s rhythm team — the keyboardist Herman Jackson, the bassist Dwayne Smitty Smith and the drummer Omari Williams — was better than it strictly had to be. (Mr. Smith, especially.)
Near the set’s close, Mr. James showed that he wasn’t above cribbing one of Kenny G’s tricks, circular-breathing a single note on soprano saxophone during a cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the Bill Withers tune. But he didn’t let the moment curdle: Soon the band segued into another slow jam, Mr. James punctuating his phrases with a grin.
The Smooth Cruise takes place on Wednesdays from July 15 through Sept. 2; smoothjazznewyork.com.